Interviews'We stand to lose large chunks of the Jewish people'

As process stalls, candidates to lead Jewish Agency warn of urgent world challenges

The Times of Israel speaks to figures seeking to head the venerable body as drawn-out nomination reveals political rifts; coalition nominees refuse interviews

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The candidates vying to become the next Jewish Agency head, clockwise from upper left - Danny Danon, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Omer Yankelevich, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Michael Oren, Ruth Calderon (Courtesy)
The candidates vying to become the next Jewish Agency head, clockwise from upper left - Danny Danon, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Omer Yankelevich, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Michael Oren, Ruth Calderon (Courtesy)

The race for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency has become surprisingly compelling.

With parties in the unwieldy government coalition putting forth competing candidates, and the powerful opposition Likud party backing its own contender, there was already some intrigue over who would run the massive semi-governmental organization.

The Yair Lapid-backed front-runner, Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern, withdrew his candidacy in October, amid a growing controversy over comments suggesting he had ignored sexual harassment complaints as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate.

Since then, the coalition’s actions have done little to inspire confidence in the process, or in an organization that is often seen as an arcane holdover whose chairman is selected through back-room dealing.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai of the Labor Party initially threw his hat in the ring, seeking to claim Stern’s mantle as government-backed front-runner. Though he maintains he is still in the race, Shai did not receive the government’s backing, and has not been invited to the second round of interviews by the nominating committee.

Last week, after pressuring the nominating committee to extend the deadline for submitting a new coalition candidate, Lapid announced that his Yesh Atid party’s nominee would be Ruth Calderon, a former lawmaker for the centrist faction. Calderon is a longtime Jewish educator, Talmud scholar and founder of Israel’s first secular study center. She served in the Knesset from 2013 to 2015.

Former MK Ruth Calderon at the Rabbi Kook Museum in Jerusalem on March 5, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has not backed Calderon, and might never do so, and sources say that there is significant resistance to her candidacy among religious committee members because of her approach to Jewish observance. In a newly resurfaced video from 2014, Calderon said that she might place bread on her seder table during Passover when such food is shunned, to remember those who are hungry.

Meanwhile, Lapid’s coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, continues to back former Diaspora Minister Omer Yankelevich from his Blue and White party.

While candidates without coalition backing have been giving comprehensive interviews about their visions for the agency, both Calderon and Yankelevich are refusing to talk to the press.

The coalition’s task is complicated by Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, who had been slated to take over Stern’s ministry and has said he will not vote with the coalition until he is given a portfolio. He could have moved into Shai’s Diaspora Ministry, but by all accounts, Shai is staying put.

The race is now wide open. Reports emerged after Stern dropped out that the nominating committee would like to choose a woman, and there are compelling female candidates like Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and Michal Cotler-Wunsh without political backing. At the same time, it is hard to ignore experienced diplomats like Michael Oren and Danny Danon, who are both pushing for the position.

Illustrative: Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog, center, at an event at Ben Gurion Airport to welcome some 300 new immigrants from France on a special flight organized by the Jewish Agency, July 23, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Jewish Agency’s executive body, which consists of 10 people — five members of the World Zionist Organization, three representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America, and two representatives from Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal — had been set to decide on October 24 who would serve as the next head of the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization. Days before, the executive committee announced that the vote would be postponed by two months in order to give the coalition more time to select its candidate.

But at this stage, there are no guarantees that a decision will be made anytime soon. Sources say that the process has been so botched that it may well stretch into July and the Board of Governors meeting, with the committee interviewing a whole new slate of candidates.

Some of the independent candidates are starting to voice their frustration with the potential damage being done to the Jewish Agency’s reputation and the coalition’s tactics.

“The great achievement of Natan [Sharansky] and Boujie [Isaac Herzog] was to elevate the position of the chairman, and elevate it above politics, and in doing so they elevated the entire agency above politics.” said Oren of previous leaders. “This entire process has once again enmeshed it in politics.”

“As it is, the agency has a PR problem in Israel,” he continued. “This process has not made refuting that argument easier.”

“I think it’s very sad, because the Jewish Agency is more than a political arrangement,” lamented Hassan-Nahoum. “Anyone who really wants this job and has passion for the cause applied long ago.”

A rubber-stamp no more

The agency was founded in 1929 to be the representative of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine to the world. It founded the institutions of the emerging state, as well as towns and farms.

Illustration. New immigrants arrive at Ben Gurion airport in Israel. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

Once the state was founded, the Jewish Agency became a parallel organization with a complex relationship to the government and state institutions. The Jewish Agency is empowered by law to determine eligibility for immigration, but it operates as a non-profit, making it easier to fundraise. It also used to be prominent in the rescue of Jews abroad, which it is still involved in, but on a far smaller scale as persecuted Jewish communities have largely succeeded in emigrating.

By tradition, the prime minister suggests a candidate to head the quasi-governmental organization and the candidate is generally rubberstamped by the nominating committee and then by its 120-person board of governors.

But in recent years, the Jewish Agency’s traditional role as steadfast representative of the Israeli government has shifted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is kissed by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish agency after delivering a speech in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

In June 2017, a year before the end of Natan Sharansky’s repeatedly extended term as chairman, the former Prisoner of Zion took an unprecedented step in publicly opposing both the government and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had appointed him to the position eight years earlier, over withdrawn plans for a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall and, separately, legislation to cement the de facto ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversions to Judaism in Israel.

The second major snub came a year later when the agency’s Board of Governors unanimously elected opposition leader Isaac Herzog, the former head of the Zionist Union faction and perennial Netanyahu critic, to succeed Sharansky as its chairman, against the prime minister’s explicit wishes.

Herzog’s ascension to the presidency sparked the race to replace him.

Outgoing Jewish Agency head Nathan Sharansky and then new chief Isaac Herzog at an event welcoming some 300 new immigrants from France on a special ‘aliyah’ flight organized by the agency, at Ben Gurion Airport on July 23, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The eventual nominee will wield considerable influence over diaspora-Israel relations, the fight against antisemitism, immigration to Israel, Jewish education, and the allocation of more than $370 million in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world.

He or she will also have to navigate emerging challenges like increasing partisanship in liberal democracies, an increasingly assertive progressive caucus that has Israel’s relationship with the US in its crosshairs, growing apathy or even antipathy among young Jews toward Judaism and Israel, ongoing BDS campaigns, and more.

The Times of Israel spoke with four of the leading candidates for the position.

Veteran diplomat and Netanyahu rival

Danny Danon, chairman of World Likud, has extensive experience in government and representing Israel in the US.

Israel’s then-ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana, July 28, 2020. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Not long after graduating from Florida International University, Danon was sent by the Jewish Agency to be its emissary in South Florida. He entered politics through the Likud party, and served as an MK from 2009-2015. Danon was a consistent critic of Benjamin Netanyahu within the party, challenging the prime minister for party leadership twice.

While serving as Science and Technology Minister, Danon was appointed by Netanyahu to serve as Israel’s UN ambassador, and succeeded in improving Israel’s position within UN committees.

Danon told the Times of Israel that Israel’s increased acceptance within the UN stemmed in large part from small countries benefiting from Israeli technologies.

Danon sees the mission of the Jewish Agency in coming years as fighting antisemitism, and promoting Jewish continuity and identity. He argues that the Jewish Agency has enduring relevance because it is the “largest organization that allows all Jews of different perspectives and ideologies to sit together at one table.”

“It is the most important platform for Jewish people to tackle challenges of the Jewish future,” he said.

Danon maintained that the strength of Jewish communities around the world is not only important for Diaspora communities. “It makes them more involved in Judaism and Israel,” he stressed. “I call it part of Israel’s diplomatic Iron Dome.”

Pointing to his record at the UN, Danon said he is a bridge-builder –  which is key to unifying Jewish leaders and communities in combatting BDS. “Radical voices are becoming louder,” he said. “They are not going to disappear.”

One of his priorities at the Jewish Agency will be Jewish day schools: “I think we have to focus on the teenagers, to see how we can connect Jewish teenagers to their roots.”

An illustrative photo of students at a US Jewish day school. (Courtesy of The Epstein School via JTA)

Danon clearly has ample experience working within government and with Jewish communities. But he is a Likud man at a time when his longtime political home is out of power. It is possible for Likud representatives on the Jewish Agency board to find more support for Danon by offering support for other parties’ candidates for other positions, but it will take significant wheeling and dealing.

Danon insists the position is not political, and that his Likud affiliation won’t hurt him. “Whoever gets elected will have to put his ideology aside,” he emphasized.

Pointing to his time as chairman of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee, and on the Jewish Agency board, Danon said he brings “the skills and experience and connections worldwide, to fundraise and promote the goals for the Jewish people.”

Reflecting the Jewish people’s diversity 

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor in charge of foreign relations, international economic development and tourism for the city, grew up in Gibraltar speaking English and Spanish. Her father was Gibraltar’s first mayor and later chief minister for two decades.

Hassan-Nahoum moved to Israel with her family in 2001, before working at the Joint Distribution Committee and founding a communications firm.

Fleur Hasson-Nahoum (photo credit: GIlabraand, Wikimedia Commons – CC)

She entered local politics in 2013 with Jerusalem’s pluralistic Yerushalmim Party, sitting on the city council and leading the faction. She ran on mayoral candidate Ze’ev Elkin’s Jerusalem Will Succeed list in 2018, and was named deputy mayor by the winner of the race, Moshe Lion, who is supporting her candidacy.

She has also been active in promoting ties between Israel and its new partners in the Arab world through the UAE-Israel Business Council, which she co-founded in 2020 with Israeli investor Dorian Barak.

Hassan-Nahoum believes that her background makes her the right person to lead the Jewish Agency at this juncture.

“I believe this is a job better suited for an Israeli who grew up in the diaspora,” she said, arguing that the main challenge facing Jewish communities around the world is no longer physical survival, but is now continuity.

“Israelis have a harder time understanding the diaspora’s challenges and certainly the challenges faced by immigrants,” she maintained.

“The diaspora Jews are our family, our tribe, it has to be something that we strengthen and perpetuate. The Jewish Agency is best positioned to strengthen this symbiotic relationship. The diaspora needs Israel, Israel needs the diaspora.”

Hassan-Nahoum also believes that Jews outside of Israel are sometimes frustrated when they perceive a lack of pluralism in Israel, and when the institutions they encounter don’t always reflect the Jewish people’s diversity.

“The Jewish Agency has an opportunity here to elect someone who reflects the diversity of the Jewish people,” she said.

Pointing out that she speaks the languages of 90 percent of the Jewish world – English, Spanish, Hebrew, and some French – Hassan-Nahoum stressed that she is the candidate best suited to work with both English-speaking Jewish communities and those in Latin America, and that her ongoing projects in the Gulf set her up to help the emerging Jewish communities there to prosper.

As one of the top 35 pro-Israel social media influencers, according to the ranking by digital marketing firm Social Lite Creative LLC, Hassan-Nahoum feels she is well-positioned to reach young Jews around the world: “I know younger people’s criticisms of Israel, their frustrations with Israel, their desires for connection with Israel, and the medium to get them involved with Israel. I want to inject them with passion for their country and their people.”

Dr. Liu Ruopeng, Chairman of China’s Kuang-Chi Group, middle, meets Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on January 11, 2017 with Jerusalem City Council member Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, right (Courtesy: Jordan Polavoy)

Israel is not yet taking advantage of the opportunities that technology offers to connect Israel and the diaspora, she argued. She envisions students in Israel and abroad sitting together in the same e-classrooms, and a Jewish Esports video game Maccabiah Games-style tournament.

“There are so many fresh, new ideas,” she said. “I’m exploring all of this now for the young people of Jerusalem to connect with Jewish kids from around the world and also for the young people in the Abraham Accords countries and Israel to interact.”

Hassan-Nahoum decried tight government COVID-19 restrictions on entry into the country, especially for its impact on olim. “I fear that the damage caused by the shutting down of our doors to the Jews of the world who see Israel as their home is enormous. We need to advocate for our people to be able to get in and for immigrants in this country to be able to have their families here and travel to their families abroad.”

For all her experience, Hassan-Nahoum faces a major obstacle in the race – she has not been backed by any political party. However, she sees this as an advantage.

Peruvian Jews arrive on a special flight to Israel arranged by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, June 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi via JTA)

“The chairwoman has to know how to work with every government,” she pointed out.

If the nominating committee shows once again that it is willing to look beyond the political dealing around the selection, then Hassan-Nahoum has a real chance to become the Jewish Agency’s first female and first Sefardi head.

Hebrew language as the pillar

Michael Oren is a familiar figure to Jews both in Israel and around the world.

The US-born author, officer, historian, politician, and diplomat moved to Israel in 1979 after completing his MA in international affairs from Columbia University. He served as an IDF paratrooper in the 1982 First Lebanon War, and was arrested by the KGB as he traveled through the Soviet Union to make contact with the Zionist Underground.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton University, Oren rose to prominence with his acclaimed 2002 book Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

Former MK and Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren speaks during a segment of Behind the Headlines, May 30, 2021. (Times of Israel)

In 2009, while teaching at Georgetown University, Oren was appointed by Netanyahu to serve as ambassador to the US. He was a key figure in navigating the often fraught relationship between Netanyahu and US president Barack Obama.

After leaving the post in 2013, Oren served in the Knesset from 2015-2019, while continuing to write and lecture.

Though the Jewish Agency had a reputation as a “heavily bureaucratic dinosaur” for many years, Oren sees its role today just as important as in 1948, if not more so.

“The Jewish people are on the brink of a disaster, a historic catastrophe,” he pointed out. “We stand to lose large chunks of the Jewish people through alienation from Israel, alienation from Jewish identity, the Jewish people. No other organization has the experience, the outreach, the capability, the budget, the vision to reach out to bring the Jewish people back from the brink.”

Young Jewish adults from all over the world participating in the Taglit Birthright program celebrate 10 years of the Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, January 7, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Hebrew language would be a pillar of the Jewish Agency’s outreach to the Jewish World if Oren is selected. “This is the lingua franca of the Jewish people. To me, it’s the DNA of the connection with Israel.”

He would like the Jewish Agency to promote Hebrew language programs abroad based on the immersive Middlebury College model, and would like the organization to expand its role in promoting Hebrew at Jewish summer camps.’

Oren is unequivocal in his belief that “a thriving secure Jewish diaspora is a historic, moral strategic interest. Period.”

In reaching those communities, he stressed, there is no one approach that the Jewish Agency can use across the board.

“Every community has to be treated separately, and with a language that is geared toward them and their sensitivities,” he said. “We can’t talk about the way young French Jews have experienced antisemitism the same way we talk about the young Australians have experienced antisemitism.”

According to Oren, who has published novels and short stories in addition to his historical scholarship, Israel, through the Jewish Agency, needs to tell a new story with emotional punch to the world. When he was a deputy minister in Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister asked him why Israel was losing the public relations battle.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama talk at Ben Gurion Airport after Obama’s arrival in Israel in March 2013. Michael Oren walks behind Obama (Via Facebook)

“I told him there were many reasons, but the core reason was that the Palestinians and their supporters have a narrative of five words which anybody can recite – oppression, occupation, racism, colonialism, imperialism.”

“What are our five words?” Oren asked.

After getting the typical proposal about innovation and desert agriculture from Madison Avenue marketing executives, Oren sat with poets and came up with a story revolving around ideas like home, family, community, and creativity.

“It’s a whole different message,” he said. “That would guide my approach to reaching out to young, liberal, estranged American Jews.”

Like Hassan-Nahoum, Oren is not backed by any party, but he argues that he is therefore not beholden to any faction or community. “I am completely non-partisan. I was an advisor to Rabin, and I was an ambassador for Netanyahu, and a member of a centrist party.”

“I can reach across any aisle.”

A living bridge

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former MK who currently heads the Nefesh B’Nefesh institute for Aliya Strategy & Policy and is a scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federations of North America,  sees the Jewish Agency as a bridge between Jews in Israel and those across the globe.

“It is imperative to ensure that the bridge goes both ways,” she stressed, saying that the organization must increase Israeli governmental understanding, give Jews outside of Israel a unifying platform to sound their voices, and insist that implications on world Jewish communities are part of the Israeli policy process.

Cotler-Wunsh, the Jerusalem-born and Montreal-raised daughter of Canadian human rights lawyer and politician Irwin Cotler, sees herself as a sort of bridge as well.

Nefesh B’Nefesh Senior Public Policy & Strategy Advisor Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“I submitted my candidacy for this role supported by so many because of who and what I am and represent, a live bridge with the ability and responsibility to recognize and mediate differences and the dignity that comes with them,” she said. “The intersection of identities that coexist within me harmoniously, informed by Jewish and universal values especially relevant at this intersection.”

Under her leadership, she said, the Jewish Agency would focus on three pillars – olim and aliyah, Israel- diaspora relations, and combatting antisemitism,

Cotler-Wunsh believes that her expertise in international and human rights law makes her the candidate most capable of implementing the Jewish Agency’s mission.

She sees the delegitimization and lawfare campaign against Israel that began at the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, as a systematic attempt to drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora, and Israel and her fellow countries.

“Among the tools I carry is a keen understanding of international law and human rights that are critical in the analysis of challenges and opportunities,” she maintained, stressing that Israel must speak ‘the language of rights.’

MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White) at a Knesset panel on anti-Semitism on social media, October 14, 2020 (Screenshot)

“We must flip the paradigm reaffirming that the State of Israel is not compensation for atrocities of the Holocaust, rather that the Holocaust could not have occurred had it existed,” she said. “We must reiterate that its miraculous existence is the story of the return of an archetypical indigenous people to an ancestral homeland.”

While she went out of her way to reject the notion of identity politics, she argued that her experience as an olah, as a lone soldier, and as a woman allow her to see issues in ways that past Jewish Agency chiefs have not been able to.

“Multiplicity of identities is a good thing,” she said. “And after 100 years, it’s time for a woman in this role.”

Cotler-Wunsh believes a dragged nomination process is the last thing the Jewish people need. “There is growing opportunity, but also growing urgency as multidimensional challenges grow.”

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